Kentucky Basketball: Bold Predictions for the Wildcats' 2016-17 Season
While Kentucky should once again have one of the best teams in college basketball next season, it doesn't mean everything will go according to plan.
The Wildcats showed last year even a highly talented squad can have ups and downs over the course of the year with plenty of surprises. Fans might have expected an SEC tournament title but not a second-round exit in the NCAA tournament. Even fewer likely thought Jamal Murray would put up such good numbers or that Skal Labissiere wouldn't.
This uncertainty is what makes watching any sport enjoyable, but we are left wondering what to expect with this long to go until November.
Not all of these will come true, but here are some predictions about the upcoming year.
Malik Monk Approaches Jamal Murray's Scoring Record
Jamal Murray exceeded all expectations last year, averaging 20 points per game and setting a school freshman record with 720 points on the season. As lofty as these numbers were, Malik Monk has a chance to replicate these stats in 2016-17.
Murray and Monk play similar positions but have different styles. Murray is a much-better outside shooter, but Monk is more athletic and can finish around the basket at a much-higher rate. This should make him as deadly of a scorer at the next level.
One thing they will have in common is the need for them to become a go-to option right out the gate. Once again, Kentucky lacks depth in the backcourt, and it will need its young players to step up and become leaders. Last year, Murray had to take around 15 shots per game due to lack of alternatives. Monk might have to play a similar role.
Not having a point guard like Tyler Ulis will take away some open looks Murray had, while an improved frontcourt will bring some more balance. However, Monk could at least come close to his predecessor with high averages and scoring totals for the season.
Defense Leads Nation in Efficiency
In the seven years John Calipari has been with Kentucky, the defense has ranked in the top 10 in adjusted defense three times, per KenPom.com. The 2014-15 squad was one of the best defensive units in a decade. Last year's team ranked just 53rd in the country.
If Kentucky wants to get back into national title contention, the first challenge will be getting the defense back to its elite status. The good news is this current group has the ability to do it.
Some of the biggest issues a year ago came due to inconsistency in the frontcourt. Labissiere, Marcus Lee and Alex Poythress were quality shot-blockers, but wild play also led to poor positioning, lackluster rebounding and a high number of fouls.
The incoming freshmen class of Bam Adebayo, Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones could actually be improvements in this area. All have some shot-blocking ability, but also could take care of business on the glass and in on-ball situations.
Meanwhile, this group's strength will be the perimeter play of Isaiah Briscoe and De'Aaron Fox, two players who can be shutdown defenders next season. With these men getting hands in faces and cutting down passing lanes, nothing will be easy for opponents.
Three-Point Shooting Drops Below 33 Percent
Kentucky's offense was much more dynamic in conference play when it hit 39.2 percent as a team as opposed to the 33.9 percent during the nonconference season.
Unfortunately, the outside shooting could be as bad or worse next season as things were in the first couple of months last year.
After losing Murray and Ulis, Derek Willis is the only returning player with at least 10 made three-pointers last season. As good as he was (44.2 percent from deep), he still won't see too much of an increase in role, even without knowing what will happen with his recent arrest.
Meanwhile, incoming guards Fox and Monk are both better slashers than shooters and could be inconsistent from beyond the arc. With little help expected from Briscoe, this will likely once again be a primarily inside- scoring team.
This won't necessarily lead to losses, but outside shooting will not be a strength.
Wenyen Gabriel Plays the Least of All Freshmen
No matter what team you play for, if you are a top-15 recruit you expect to get plenty of playing time right out of the gate. As a 5-star prospect rated No. 14 overall in the class, according to 247Sports, Wenyen Gabriel clearly has what it takes to make an impact at the college and potentially NBA level.
On the other hand, the forward is still relatively raw compared to players his age. He has the length, athleticism and shooting ability to be an asset either at the 3 or 4 position, but he still lacks the consistency and awareness you need from a player who is going to have a major role on a winning team.
This won't be a problem for Fox, Monk or Adebayo, all of which are both physically and mentally ready to start for the Wildcats. Even Killeya-Jones will be a valuable member of the team, thanks to his ability to run the floor and finish inside.
However, Gabriel might end up more like Labissiere, where his best days are still a few years ahead.
Kentucky Wins SEC with Ease
You might think Kentucky winning the SEC is a given, but the squad only has two outright and one shared regular-season title in the last six years. Even in last year's tie for first place, the Wildcats were the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament.
Things should be easier this time around as no one has replaced its talent quite like Kentucky.
Texas A&M was a serious threat last season but also had four senior starters who will be gone. Both South Carolina and Vanderbilt lost their leading scorers while only adding 247Sports' No. 63 and No. 67 recruiting classes in the country, respectively. LSU will obviously have to replace projected No. 1 draft pick Ben Simmons.
Mississippi State has a good incoming recruiting class, but the team that went just 14-17 overall last year also lost key seniors as well as former top recruit Malik Newman, who is set to transfer.
Obviously, the Wildcats also have a tough job replacing departed talent, but as usual this team has brought in players ready to contribute. Adding this to the returning contributors and this squad should be able to run away with the SEC title.
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